El pueblo unido: campus community joins in protecting undocumented students
El pueblo unido jamás será vencido
Maricruz Reyes, 24, smiled as she panned her smartphone over the crowd of roughly 600 people gathered outside the Oregon State Capitol. They were her fellow protestors, calling on Jan. 14 for state representatives to prevent President Donald Trump from deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants. Clutched to her jacket, a sign. “Save DACA,” it read.
Reyes and her family are undocumented immigrants living in Salem. She was 6 years old when she entered the United States from Colima, Mexico. In 2010, when Reyes was 18, her mother returned to Mexico to look after her grandmother. Reyes is unable to leave the U.S., and doesn’t know when the next time she would be able to see her mother again.
“My mom leaving made it really hard for me because I had to grow up faster and look for my own resources,” she said. Reyes had to pay for everything on her own: her car, gas, rent, bills and food.
Now in her senior year at Western Oregon University, Reyes works as a preschool teacher. She dreams of teaching English to non-native speakers.
Reyes is one of an estimated 665,000 “dreamers” — undocumented immigrants brought to America as children — who receive Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The federal program, which the Obama administration enacted in a 2012 executive order, protects these young immigrants: keeping them safe from deportation and providing them with a work permit. Dreamers are worried about Trump’s promise to repeal the program, along with his promises to deport all undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Students and faculty in universities across America are advocating for measures to protect and support their undocumented immigrant communities.
Reyes relies on DACA to own a social security card, or she wouldn’t be able to work, apply for scholarships and would be forced to pay out-of-state tuition.
“I don’t know what I would do, where I would go to work without a social,” Reyes said. “I would feel like I have come to a dead end.”
Two meetings, one movement
The University of Oregon administration is considering demands to keep its undocumented students safe, hoping to aid young immigrants who might lose DACA, or protect them from deportation. UO admissions counselors estimate that there are 35 undocumented students enrolled at the university.
Students and faculty in more than 80 universities across the country sent demands to their administrators; most called for their staff to refuse to release student citizenship status information and bar immigration enforcement from their campuses. The protests became a movement called “Sanctuary Campus.”
In the week after Trump’s election victory, students from undocumented and mixed-status families approached UO international studies Assistant Professor Kristin Yarris, expressing concerns on what a Trump presidency might mean for them and their families. Yarris decided that she needed to take action.
“Their whole future is uncertain now,” Yarris said. “How can we, as faculty, expect these students to be in our classes, paying full attention and doing well on their assignments?”
Yarris reached out to colleagues across the country and helped start a private Facebook page called “Protecting Undocumented Students,” which she said began with 12 members, before expanding to 1,906 faculty and university administrators. On the page, academics began sharing sanctuary campus petitions.
The following week, Yarris, along with members of UO’s Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies, drafted a resolution to faculty senate calling for a sanctuary campus. The drafters based the demands listed on those shared in the Protecting Undocumented Students group. The faculty senate passed the resolution unanimously during the Nov. 16 faculty senate meeting.
Outside the EMU, where the faculty meeting was held, around 150 students gathered in the amphitheater. At the same time, student organizers led a rally demanding that the university be a sanctuary campus and safe space for undocumented immigrants. The students took on a list of demands created by the undocumented immigrant rights advocacy group, Cosecha. One student organizer, UO junior Vickie Gimm, joined a Cosecha-led conference call with over 50 students from U.S. universities to plan how to make the demands.
“It was really powerful to see all these representatives from different schools uniting, coming together over these issues to express solidarity and work towards this great event,” she said.
It was during this meeting where many student organizers, including Gimm, heard the word sanctuary campus for the first time, and decided that the national sanctuary campus protests would take the form of a walkout.
Students released similar demands to those by faculty on protecting undocumented students from immigration enforcement, demanding that the university refuse to release information about a student’s immigration status to police agencies. However, students have private records protected: the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prevents university faculty and staff from releasing private information without a student’s consent. Also, university police would not have immigration status information to share. According to UOPD policy 428, UOPD officers do not collect data on citizenship.
The separate student and faculty demands both called for the university to instruct campus police not to collaborate with immigration law enforcement. UOPD Chief Matthew Carmichael posted a YouTube video saying that “it is not the responsibility of the UOPD to enforce federal immigration law.” His message was translated by a Spanish-speaking student standing next to him.
Students and faculty also called for UO to refuse access to federal officials enforcing immigration laws. However, one legal expert said that if immigration enforcement has a valid warrant, university officials would have to comply with them.
“Immigration officials are subject to the law just like anybody else. If they are going to seize somebody, that has to be in compliance with our Constitution,” said Lewis and Clark College law professor Juliet Stumpf.
UO President Michael Schill and Provost Scott Coltrane stated that they would comply with both the faculty and student demands when it came to protecting students from immigration enforcement: refusing to share information with the federal government on student immigration status, enforce immigration laws with federal officers or allow immigration enforcement on campus without a warrant.
Schill, along with 609 other university presidents, also signed on to a statement calling for DACA to be continued. According to Betsy Boyd, a UO lobbyist, the university has a track record of supporting citizenship for Dreamers. After Obama began DACA in 2012, UO supported a state tuition-equity bill that allows Dreamers to receive in-state tuition at state universities.
UO faculty and students had urged administration to declare the UO a “sanctuary campus.” Yarris feels that using the language “sanctuary” is important for symbolic reasons.
“When social movements wrap themselves around something, like the concept of ‘sanctuary,’ it’s the same thing [as any social movement in history], from racial justice to marriage equality: people push back and ask ‘what does that really mean and why does it matter?’” she said. “I think that with sanctuary, we are recognizing that there are structural reasons why these group of people feel scared, disenfranchised, disempowered and politically marginalized and, as a social movement, we are using the idea of ‘sanctuary’ that has symbolic importance and is something that we can rally ourselves around.”
But Schill has refused to use the term “sanctuary.” During an informal question-and-answer session with the Emerald staff in November 2016, the university president said that he wants to know the exact definition of what declaring the campus to be a “sanctuary” is.
UO law professor Carrie Leonetti said the faculty and student demands need to be more specific before UO can declare itself a sanctuary.
“If sanctuary means refusing to cooperate with ICE other than at the business end of a court order (valid FOIA order, search warrant, subpoena), … I believe that it has already publicly committed to do that,” Leonetti wrote. “If, on the other hand, sanctuary means resisting valid court orders, that is a much bigger ask. Withholding consent is one thing; committing civil disobedience is another.”
Finding a solution
The faculty specifically demanded an administrative office to assist undocumented immigrants, mental health services for politically marginalized communities, training in “upstander intervention,” and an ongoing forum for feedback from students and faculty and staff.
The UO already has the University Health Center, which offers anxiety workshops and stress workshops facilitated by a person who is well-versed on social justice issues. There is also the Wellness Center in the EMU – a room completely run by students also trained on social justice issues and health issues on campus.
Admissions counselor Antonio Huerta, who has worked on a scholarship committee to support undocumented students, feels mental health services for undocumented students would be beneficial. He said many are under a lot of pressure to succeed.
“There is family pressure to do well academically or there is this sense that my parents are sort of putting all of their eggs in one basket — my basket,” he said. “There can be this feeling of hopelessness when they might ask themselves, ‘Is it really worth it for me to go through all of this? What is this going to do beyond graduation?’”
Huerta also said an administrative center focused on helping undocumented students would help Dreamers find someone they can trust. “There is the fear of having to explain themselves to somebody who is not going to understand them,” he said.
But Huerta feels that the UO should provide more scholarships to undocumented students. He says most are ineligible for financial aid and work three jobs throughout high school and college as a result.
“It is really difficult to grasp what these students have to go through to be here,” he said. “They are paying completely out of pocket. So the parents are working their own job to provide some financial support for the students to be here, and the students themselves are working so they can be here. It seems like all of the odds are against them to succeed academically.”
Do you appreciate independent student journalism? Emerald Media Group is a non-profit organization. Please consider a donation to support our mission.